Inspired by a post at Queen Without A Court. And here is the thing: everyone’s is different. And I want to say again, in case it wasn’t clear: I am a mage and natural philosopher who incidentally happens to be a Polytheist, because I have observed the existence of plural gods. I’m not trying to be the world’s best Polytheist — I am trying to do some science. As a person of this sort of disposition, faith is mutable — a moment to moment thing, modified by whatever my up-to-the-minute experiences are, and it does not define who I am as a person. If I discovered tomorrow I was wrong, it would not invalidate my sense of self.
So here’s is the state of my Polytheism, at least as of August 14th, 2016. I reserve the right to have a different Polytheism tomorrow, as I experience and learn new things. Here it goes:
On a clear night, look at the sky.
From where you sit, observing, an average of 5,000 stars can be seen with the naked eye, but in the observable universe, there are more than a septillion (That’s a 1 followed by twenty-four zeros). Nearly every star has at least one planet, with the average number of planets per star being around 1.6. Scientists estimate that there are about 160 billion alien planets in the Milky Way alone.
Our sun is temporary. On a cosmic time-table, life on Earth is but a brief exhalation. Unless we found an inter-galatic empire, we will cease to exist, our gods will cease to exist (though I believe that, like us, they have immortal souls and will continue on to another transmigration), and the estimated number of fucks that the observable universe will give is approximately zero.
My deities don’t control history. That’s the job of the Moirai, and the Moirai give approximately zero fucks (better expressed as 0.01 fucks, as opposed to the absolute zero fucks given by the larger cosmos) about what the gods want, or about human propitiation. The other option is to believe that that the deities of Europe somehow wanted most of Europe to be converted to Christianity, or that they simply were unmoved by the agonizing screams of the priests and priestesses who were tortured (often by having their toenails pulled out) for refusing to abandon their gods.
The physical universe is full of laws: gravity, entropy, inertia, thermodynamics, information, evolution. Those laws have consequences. The same principles alive in the universe which allowed unicellular organisms to mutate and evolve into multicellular ones also make it possible for cells in our bodies to mutate, and for us to die of cancer. The same law of gravity that is responsible for us falling down when we lose our footing is what fuses hydrogen into helium– and causes the stars to give off light. Move even one of these laws to the right or the left, and the whole of the universe will unravel. There does not need to be a deity of any of these things, because if any of these things had free will, they could move to the right or the left, and the world in which we live would likely not exist right now. A deity is defined, in my polytheism, by free will, agency, and power over themselves.
The metaphysical universe is full of laws, too. If we were to develop magic into a science, we’d have a much better idea of what they were. Right now, that science is still in the observation and fishing stage, and probably won’t get much past that for the foreseeable future, because people have faith-related things going on in that arena, and are basically terrified that their deeply held personal beliefs might be contradicted, which would invalidate their belief in whatever it is.
It’s cool. One time? The Catholic Church put Galileo under house arrest because they were afraid of what his observations about the stars meant for their faith in Jesus. Obviously, in retrospect, the two things had literally nothing to do with one another. Same thing, here. Only instead of the church putting people under house arrest, it’s community leaders trying to belittle and minimize those actively trying to do anything new.
Attaining understanding starts with an absence of fear. Fear breeds ignorance, anger, hatred and small-mindedness. Fear is what is destroying our community. It’s why Pagans and Polytheists hate each other. It’s fear of being invalidated: by other ideas, by the success of other people. It’s fear of rejection: by the community and by the gods.
I do know this: in a lot of important ways, consensus is reality and reality is consensus. That is why purity, power, momentum, favor and grace are obtained in very different ways in different parts of the world, based on the beliefs of the cultures in question.
In both the physical and metaphysical universe, there are forces at work larger than the gods of my polytheism. But those larger things have neither will, nor agency, nor divinity. They just are. There’s no sense in venerating them, in my mind, because it would always be a one-sided relationship. There is no one home. I could imagine that there was, if I tried hard enough, but if I tried hard enough, I could imagine that a stuffed bear had a soul inside of it. At the end of the day, me talking to a projection of my will in the shape of that stuffed bear does me no good, and there are better ways to spend my energy. A similarly sized projection of my will could be out there helping me find a better doctor or getting me a job.
In short: the deities I believe in aren’t fucking with anyone. It’s just that the universe is vast, and largely indifferent to the existence of humans, and to the existence of their deities. Shit happens. It happens to humans, and it happens to deities. Even in the ancient myths, we have so, so many stories about deities losing people they love and being powerless to prevent it. Krokos, Hyakinthos, and Adonis, to name a few.
I will not sparkle-wash misery, or try to find a “silver lining” in atrocity. This would put me in the inhuman position of looking a cancer patient in the face and telling them that their illness and pain is their own fault, or else explaining to them that their suffering is just collateral damage in some “plan” that a divinity has. That is just bullshit that humans tell themselves so that they can be reassured about someone else’s suffering. It’s not so comforting to the sufferer, generally. And there is no way in which my suffering would make the world a better place. For anyone. And even if it could, there is probably an equally effective solution which doesn’t require something awful happening to me.
I don’t believe that suffering is the wrath of petty gods, either. There is no religion or path — no matter how well adhered to — wherein no one suffers poverty, illness and pain. There are pious people who suffer. There are horrible, nasty, cruel people who flourish and find prosperity, health and power. The gods are not vending machines with a secret code to get free twinkies, which inexplicably explodes when you get one digit in that secret code wrong.
WISDOM. IS. POWER. It is social power. It is power over the self. Being alive for thousands of years tends to give a being some perspective. It is the very gift of immortality. That, and patience. Look at someone half your age, and see how differently they deal with social problems. Now look at someone a quarter of your age, and note that the difference is even more striking. The older you get, the more true this is, but even at 20, you can clearly see the difference between yourself, and a ten year old, and a five year old. As someone just a hair under 40, I look at twenty somethings, and you’d best believe that I’ve learned more than they have about that kind of thing. Imagine what you would know if you were 4,000! or 6,000! Imagine looking at a two thousand year old deity and saying, “Yeah, when I was your age, I couldn’t figure that out, either. That’s not as big of a problem as it seems, and I could advise you, but I know you wouldn’t listen.”
Imagine how well, at four thousand years old, you’d be able to manage your temper, or react to disappointment, or how good at persuasion and diplomacy you could be. Being in a pantheon requires cooperation. Having followers requires cooperation. The deities of my Polytheism are masters of this kind of thing.
Anything that manifests without at least as much ability to cooperate, social problem solving skills, and ability to self-manage as I have? I refuse to give it respect or veneration. As a Hellene, I believe that the act of worship can deify a soul, and deifying something which is not really qualified to be a divinity in the presence of the Hellenic pantheon is not a good plan. At all.
WISDOM. IS. POWER. The laws of physics and metaphysics, if you really understand them, are deeply weird, and have all kinds of built in exploits. We’ve figured out a few already. The deities of my polytheism have figured out more.
My gods are powerful. I have seen them teleport objects from plain sight, arrange elaborate chains of coincidence, summon ghostly apparitions, open doors for my cat, put cash money directly into my grubby little paws, and help me route around neurological issues which my doctors said were not route-round-able.
Yet their power has limits. I have seen them exhausted. I have seen them weep with frustration — that for all their wisdom and power, they can’t stop people in their community from tearing each other down, even though we have a thousand miles to go in terms of building it up. Much like they couldn’t stop Constantine or Theodosius.
As a Hellene, I recognize the choice of people to worship a being as instrumental in making them a deity, rather than simply divine — a part of how apotheosis works. This extends to Roman polytheism, of course, but in Greek mythos, it is best embodied by Asklepios, who was born a mortal, killed by Zeus, and became a deity because people venerated him.
My polytheism is about harmony and reciprocity.
To me, religion is a bridge between heaven and earth. It is a bridge which must be built from both sides, and which can be burned from either.
Without a nation, there can be no monarch, and monarchy is always just one revolution away from the monarch’s head on a chopping block.
Without commoners, there can be no nobility. It is the recognition of the system on the part of the majority that allows for the elite few to exist.
Without people spending money, there are no profitable corporations. Walmart isn’t an eternal institution. A permanent boycott, if it were big enough (and it wouldn’t have to include everyone, just the simple majority), would force them out of business.
Without worshippers, there may be divinities, beings of wisdom, or immortal spirits, but there are no deities. If you ever had the intuition that the gods were unhappy about having their people converted to Christianity, you intuitively understand what I’m saying already. They’re qualified, but underemployed. No one likes that.
Reciprocally, without something to venerate and hold as sacred, we have no religion. For those of us whose spirits crave otherworldly experiences, or who long to make sense of the world using the tapestry of narrative using shared belief, symbolism and experience — we need religion. It connects us to each other in the present, and creates a sense of continuity, with both the future and the past.
Harmony and cooperation between any two parties requires compromise on both sides — if and only if they both want to be in that partnership. That is reciprocity: both the deities and the mortals put something into the relationship.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, my Polytheism is about sacred hospitality.
This has many meanings for me, and I could say quite a lot about it, but here is how it boils down:
When I journey, the gods are the hosts, and I am the guest. They are honor-bound to keep me safe when I come to visit them. They must not violate me or my identity, or they are also in violation of their deeply held values. In the same spirit, I must not wreck their house — I must leave my hangers-on behind (I’ve got a few familiar spirits who need to be parked at home)– my fear and hatred must be checked at the door. “Work in progress” is something my deities understand. They are not looking to catch me on a technicality so that they can rain terror and misery down on my head.
When the gods come down to me, they are the guests, and I am the host. I must see to their comfort — by cleaning and tidying the space, by providing food and drink for them, by giving them a place to rest — and I must hold their personhood inviolate. Assassinating their character by making them out to be children or monsters would be a violation of that hospitality — a thing which can unfortunately happen during trance possessory work when we let our fears about deities (or our emotional need to not take responsibility) color our expression of them. They, in that same spirit, have not come down to insult their host or wreck my home or my body.
My deities are known for their Aidos (rough translation: ability to feel shame when they do something wrong) and their presence is marked by Kharis (translation: grace, or a sensation of joy and pleasure from interacting with them).
And so that is the state of my faith, at least as of today. My faith does not preclude you from having your own. It is a belief system which values cooperation, compromise, fearlessness, wisdom, knowledge, hospitality, and reciprocity. It may not be comforting to those who want a higher power to live their life for them, and it will not offer solace to those looking to frame their suffering in terms of some kind of higher plan. It’s dark, and it’s honest: it does not sparkle-wash human misery, or look for some “silver lining” in outright tragedies.
In my Polytheism, suffering has no meaning. It is something that deities and humans need to work together to address, and we get better at doing so with every passing century. That is who the deities of my Polytheism are: the best damned allies in this struggle that we could hope for.
When we inevitably spread out to the stars and form our intergalactic human empire, and we look back on who we are as a species, when we fully accept all human cultures as equally contributing to our human identity, we will see our species — the human species — as a species that has many gods. Once we outgrow the need to compare human identities to see which are valid and which are not, which gods real and which only myths, when we step back from needing to invalidate outsiders, Polytheism is the reality. That Earth has many deities is the truest thing we can say about our species, in the past, the present, and possibly always. And that is why I am a Polytheist.